Near the end of “The Mother,” her son strangles the title character to death. But not really. The mother (Isabelle Huppert) is imagining it, or dreaming it. There is a change of lighting, her husband (Chris Noth) is standing over her hospital bed, and the mother, no longer dead, says: “What’s going on?”
What indeed? “The Mother,” which is on stage at the Atlantic Theater through April 13, is about a middle-aged woman who has become unmoored after her children have grown up and left home – especially her son Nicolas (Justice Smith.) The woman has only brief moments of fitful clarity. The same could be said of the play
“The Mother” is written by the French playwright Florian Zeller and translated into English by Christopher Hampton, the same team that brought “The Father” to Broadway in 2016, starring Frank Langella as a man suffering from dementia. Although both plays are told from the point of view of a deteriorating central character, this ‘Mother’ is no “Father.” That production engaged us emotionally in the man’s sad descent. What engages us in “The Mother” is the thrill of seeing a starry cast.
That thrill begins for the audience upon entering the theater. As we take our seats, Isabelle Huppert is sitting at one end of a sectional white sofa, the width of the entire stage, staring out to space.
The play starts when her husband (Noth) enters the living room – coming home late from work, he says, but she doesn’t believe him. She implies that he is sleeping with another woman. She’s angry and she’s upset, but Huppert keeps cool, as if numbed, or deranged. She tells him she bought a red dress during the day, which she will wear on “some really important occasion. I’ll wear it to your funeral.” She calmly lets loose an anthology of attacks and insults
“Sometimes I have dreams about murdering you. They’re my favorite dreams.”
“I don’t mean this as a compliment, David, you were a pathetic father. “
He ignores the slights, expresses concern: “Have you been drinking today?”
She becomes more transparent: “Now the children have gone, there’s nothing to keep you here.”
“You’ve lost your mind, Anne.”
That first scene is intriguing, full of the kind of humor with which we’ve become familiar from some 70 years of absurdist plays.
But then the next scene is a repeat of the first one, slightly altered, so that we start to distrust that what is happening before our eyes is anything but what’s happening inside her mind. Then there is a scene between the mother and the son, in which she insults his girlfriend, and makes clear she misses him. And that scene also repeats, and also makes us try to piece together what’s real and what’s imagined. The designers, especially lighting designer Ben Stanton, heighten the sense of the dramatic, even in the absence of coherent drama.
Isabelle Huppert is supremely watchable. Justice Smith is graceful. Noth is solid. The fourth cast member, Odessa Young, is more reliable than her character(s.) She’s sometimes Emily, Nicolas’ girlfriend, sometimes the father’s mistress, briefly perhaps Sara, the daughter, sometimes a nurse – or is she always just a figment of the mother’s imagination?
All four actors do what they can to enliven the mannered, belabored and repetitive script. I’m glad I didn’t miss their performances. I felt like I missed the play, even as I was sitting through it.
Written by Florian Zeller, translated by Christopher Hampton; Directed by Trip Cullman
Set design by Mark Wendland, costume design by Anita Yavich, lighting design by Ben Stanton, sound design by Fitz Patton, projection design by Lucy Mackinnon
Isabelle Huppert, Chris Noth, Justice Smith and Odessa Young
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission
Tickets are completely sold out.
The Mother is scheduled to run through April 13, 2019